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October 11. 2012 8:45PM

Allen Lessels' College Football: 'Cats are running wild

DURHAM -- SOME OF the rather large guys up front on the offensive line, said University of New Hampshire sophomore Nico Steriti, have gotten into the habit of coming up to the team's running backs after football games this season and talking numbers.

Big numbers.

The Wildcats are, as usual, putting up impressive numbers on offense on the way to a 4-2 overall record and 2-1 mark in the Colonial Athletic Association going into Saturday's Homecoming game at Cowell Stadium against Richmond, also 4-2 and 2-1.

What has been a little unusual is the balance in those numbers.

UNH is averaging 259.3 rushing and 247.7 passing yards a game for 507 total yards of offense, the second-best total in the CAA.

Junior Seamus O'Neill, the starting left tackle out of Manchester, smiled when the subject of numbers and offensive balance came up.

“We like to be able to do both,” O'Neill said “Being able to do both really keeps a defense off balance.”

Said Steriti: “It confuses a defense. They don't know how to attack us.”

The Wildcats are one of just three teams in Division I, and the only one in the Football Championship Subdivision, that is putting up at least 245 yards a game both passing and rushing, according to information provided by the school's media relations folks. The two in the Football Bowl Subdivision are Oklahoma and Nevada.

“When you draw it up, you hope it ends up like that,” said UNH coach Sean McDonnell.

So far, it has.

UNH, like most teams, has consistently looked for a balanced offense, but has often been tilted towards the pass in the past decade with a run of gunslinging quarterbacks in Ricky Santos, R.J. Toman and Kevin Decker.

The Wildcats have been to the NCAA playoffs each of the last eight years and during that time they have always passed for more yards than they've run. The biggest gap was in 2004, when Santos made his debut, and UNH passed for 280.8 yards a game and rushed for 138.1.

The closest margin was 2009 when the Wildcats passed for 201.9 yards and rushed for 138.5.

Never in this stretch has UNH rushed for more than 180 yards a game for a season.

A bit of a perfect offensive storm involving inexperienced quarterbacks, explosive running backs and a veteran offensive line has led to better balance.

McDonnell and first-year offensive coordinator Ryan Carty knew they were going to be working with an untested quarterback and hoped to establish a ground game to take some of the pressure off.

Andy Vailas, a sophomore out of Bedford and Bishop Guertin High School in Nashua, has started since the third play of the second game when redshirt freshman Sean Goldrich went down with a shoulder injury.

Vailas actually has had the longest running play of the season, a 67-yarder for a touchdown against Old Dominion. His passing — he's completed 100 of his 168 attempts for 1,242 yards and 13 touchdowns with two interceptions — and receivers such as R.J. Harris and Joey Orlando have held up that end of the offensive balance sheet, too.

McDonnell and his staff saw enough out of Steriti, junior Chris Setian and sophomore Jimmy Owens to feel comfortable moving senior Dontra Peters, the team's leading rusher the last two years, to defensive back where he has helped shore up that area.

Steriti scored three touchdowns — two on runs and another on a pass reception — in last week's 44-21 win at Georgia State, has rushed for more than 100 yards in three of the last four games and leads the CAA at 91.7 yards per game.

Then there's the offensive line, where O'Neill is one of five players who have started each game. O'Neill, senior guards Chris Zarkoskie and Mickey DiLima, and sophomore center Mike Coccia have started multiple seasons. Only sophomore tackle Rob Bowman is a first-time starter.

“I mean, nothing goes without those guys up front and we all know that,” Steriti said.

And they'll try to keep talking big numbers all season.

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Dartmouth, 3-1 overall and 1-1 in the Ivy League, will be out to avenge last year's loss when it takes on Sacred Heart in Hanover on Saturday at 1:30.

Sacred Heart, 1-4, won last year's game, 24-21, with a last-minute field goal.

The Big Green snapped a nine-game losing streak to Yale with a 34-14 win in New Haven last weekend.

Freshman Brian Gove came on for senior tailback Dominick Pierre and scored on 9-yard and 1-yard touchdown runs for Dartmouth. Pierre, who carried 19 times for 91 yards and a score, left the game with an ankle injury in the third period.

Justin Martel, a 6-foot-4 and 305-pound senior out of Manchester, starts at left tackle for Sacred Heart. Jackson King, a 5-foot-10 and 180-pounder out of Merrimack, is a wide receiver.

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St. Anselm and Pace will both look for their first wins of the season at Grappone Stadium on Saturday at 1 p.m. in Homecoming for the Hawks.

Each team is 0-6 overall and 0-5 in the Northeast-10.

Hawk freshman quarterback Andrew Murphy earned Northeast-10 Rookie of the Week honors for the second straight time for his role in a 38-28 loss to Bentley last weekend. Murphy completed 32 of his 48 passes for 293 yards and two scores.

St. Anselm beat Pace, 47-21, last season.

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Plymouth State, 2-4 overall and 1-2 in the Boyd Division of the New England Football Conference, plays host to Endicott, 4-2 and 2-1, on Saturday at 2.

Plymouth State owns a 5-2 edge in the series, but dropped a 49-0 decision at Endicott last season.

The Panthers are coming off a 28-7 loss to MIT.

alessels@unionleader.com


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